When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people speak of Country, we do not mean a specific place on a map. Country is not a bordered territory or a specified piece of segregated land.
Our relationship to Country ties into our laws, languages and songlines. It centres us. These ties connect into our kinships, our histories and our futures. Our Country is an extension of us and we of it.
I am, and my family are, Cobble Cobble from the Barrungam Nation. This means more than just a location in southwest Queensland. My office at UNSW’s Kensington campus, where many of us work and learn, is Bidijgal/Bedegal land. This means more than just our campus’ geographic position.
That is why the 2021 NAIDOC Week theme ‘Heal Country!’ is a powerful one.
Heal Country! does not only speak to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land management and care. It speaks to the lack of recognition and protection of Country in Australia.
In 2020 across our campus we experienced a proliferation of “Acknowledgments of Country” on Zooms and Teams. It was almost a manifestation of the anxiety of a community in lockdown; an expression of “country” connected Australians to the country on which many could not walk or travel.
And while Acknowledgments have increased exponentially, First Nations still wait. We wait for proper legal recognition of our lands, waters, sacred sites and cultural heritage.
While some First Nations peoples welcomed the increased symbolic acknowledgment of Country, there’s a distinct lack of action in terms of substantive rights and protection. As the official NAIDOC literature explains:
“For generations we have been calling for stronger measures to recognise, protect, and maintain all aspects of our culture and heritage.”
“We are still waiting for those robust protections.
“This year’s theme also seeks substantive institutional, structural, and collaborative reform – something generations of our Elders and communities have been advocating, marching and fighting for.”
UNSW plays a leading role in Australia in seeking those robust protections. The Uluru Statement from the Heart and its call for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament is about those institutional and structural reforms required to “Heal Country!”.
This year’s theme is not for the faint-hearted. It demands Australians to think beyond “Acknowledgments of Country” in the Teams Chat.
Ask yourself, “Have I visited UluruStatement.org?”, “Have I signed up to the Uluru Statement from the Heart?”, “Have I offered to volunteer with the Uluru Dialogue?”, “Have I written to my Local MP or the Prime Minister?”.
We need to turn symbolic gestures into ACTION.
During NAIDOC Week (4-11 July 2021), we at the Office of Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous and Nura Gili, have created several opportunities for you to dig deeper.
We have developed an Indigenous History Timeline on University Mall [postponed due to COVID-19]. As you walk up the walkway, you will find key moments in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, before and after the Invasion. If you want to know more about the language of invasion and colonisation, read the Uluru Statement’s “Our Story” on UluruStatement.org.
I invite the UNSW community – when we reschedule this on campus – to walk along this timeline and reflect. There are challenging moments in our shared history. But there is also achievement and strength. It might even reveal a pathway to a better future.
You can also watch all three of our NAIDOC Webinars. The Indigenous Law Centre's expert analysis on the Indigenous Co-design process finds 90% support for an Indigenous Voice in the Constitution. Register here and listen to the report's authors Professor Gabrielle Appleby, Dr Dani Larkin and Emma Buxton-Namisnyk discuss what the public had to say.
Our First Nations youth panel – Bridget Cama, Allira Davis and Jason O’Neil – discuss the 2021 NAIDOC theme “Heal Country!” and how structural reform, as expressed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, is needed to truly protect and recognise Country. Register now to hear these important youth perspectives.
You can also join me, in conversation with Professor Kate Fullagar, Professor Mark McKenna, and Eddie Synot. Chaired by Professor Gabrielle Appleby, we will explore the role of history and truth in the Uluru Statement from the Heart (register here).
It is in this future, with a fully implemented Uluru Statement – Voice, Treaty and Truth – that we can, collectively, ‘Heal Country!’.
As the NAIDOC committee notes: “To Heal Country, we must properly work towards redressing historical injustice.”
“…We cannot afford to let pass the very real opportunity that now presents itself for reform based on a fundamental change in the relationship Australia has with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”
Through empowering First Nations people to have a Voice, and begin Makarrata, Country can be empowered too.
When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country. – Uluru Statement from the Heart
I hope our gundoos, our jarjums, our young ones, will not need a rallying call to Heal Country! in the years ahead, but rather can live proudly in their culture and thrive in the modern world knowing Australians worked with First Nations to demand better recognition and rights.
This University plays an important role. Its Indigenous Law Centre at UNSW Law & Justice has been working on self-determination and structural recognition for 40 years! UNSW has punched above its weight nationally as a leader in the kind of thinking and change required to Heal Country!
If you are unfamiliar with this proud history, please take the time to read the UNSW Indigenous Strategy – including the Country and Culture pillar – and explore the ancient history of the lands we stand on.
UNSW has been an important place for change and impact, including for First Nations people, and will continue to be so in the future. But the time is now to step up and help First Nations fight for a constitutionally enshrined Voice. Walk with us.
I hope this week can be a further catalyst to engage, reflect, and take action, to help create a better future for all.
To all our staff, students and alumni, I warmly welcome you to NAIDOC Week.